Long gone are the days when the job you’d grow up to do would more or less be determined by the jobs your parents did. But going now is the concept of the “job for life”; something you’d study for in youth and then spend your life improving your skills at, earning more and more pay until you’d retire with a generous final salary pension.
How simple life was then, just make up your mind at, say, age 12, decide what it is that you want to do for the rest of your life and start specialising. There was a risk, I suppose, that 4-5 years down the line, you might find you no longer wanted to become a vet, a nurse, or a train driver, but by now you were too far down your chosen route to turn back and start again. On the up side, chances were that if you did well in your studies, you‘d finish your schooling and be able to step into the job your studies had prepared you for pretty much immediately. That was the story I grew up with, but by the time I started looking for work, the landscape had changed beyond recognition. It was the early 1980’s and a major economic crisis (interestingly, at least in part brought on by a sudden increase in oil prices) was in full swing. Unemployment was rocketing and every available job was swamped with applicants. Thanks to my chosen studies (modern languages), I was unemployable; either not qualified enough or overqualified, too specialised or not specialised enough as well as lacking that single ingredient that can guarantee you employment in past, present or future times: experience! I felt pretty cheated. Everything my parents, teachers and society had told me was a lie and I had wasted years suffering “formal education” (read humiliation, stress and boredom) for nothing.
I see the same scenario repeated today. Students graduate with good degrees from respected universities only to join the unemployed masses, or in desperation take a shelf stacking or table wiping job, because that’s all the market has to offer right now. Years of expensive education, a mountain of debt and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, only to find themselves doing a menial job and getting bossed about by a line manager who’s top qualifications are a couple of GCSE’s. Something’s not adding up and it’s not just the economy, stupid!
When my kids started high school, I was horrified to find that in the quarter century since I was a pupil, very little had changed in the way children are treated in the educational system. It’s as if time stood still; such little effort is made to stimulate students’ intrinsic motivation, but there’s always plenty of time to drill the kids regarding the rules of uniform. Inter-pupil bullying is met with zero tolerance, but a tentative attempt at trying out the freedoms provided by a democracy, such as organising a petition, is met with a crackdown that would make a dictator proud. When children are in school five days per week, have hours of homework every evening and during weekends, all they have time and energy for is the learning their school provides. And when the curriculum is hopelessly out of touch with the requirements of today’s labour market, is it any surprise that kids come into that world very poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of a rapidly changing world?
It is unlikely that when my kids finish their “official” schooling that they will walk seamlessly into the dream job their academic career should have prepared them for. First of all, they won’t have the necessary experience of holding down a job, secondly, the 5 days a week, 9 to 5 kind of work for an employer may not be the kind that will be most available. It is most likely that they will face a patchwork career of short term contracts, part time work, stints at self employment and unemployment as well as volunteer and unpaid work (interns) to get the experience to find work that will pay their bills. I do not see in which way the current schooling of my children is preparing them for that future. As I already mentioned, their “school day” is taking so much of their time and energy, it is hard to get them enthusiastic about learning those essential life skills at home, such as cooking from scratch and general house keeping, budgeting, growing food and basic gardening, grocery shopping, first aid and DIY, music, to name but a few. Whereas at school, kids should be learning time and stress management, people skills, emotional and psychological development, organisational and study skills, all those important abilities which will help them, regardless of the kind of career they will achieve. I know that these things are supposed to be sort of “integrated” within the wider curriculum, under the flag of transferrable skills and so on, but in reality, it amounts to little more than a tokenistic attempt. It falls far short of what today’s students will need in tomorrow’s world of work.
Creating the blanket
What has stood me in good stead in my life and kept the wolves from my door, is not the academic learning my school days gave me. Apart from learning to read and write and some very basic maths, there’s very little that I can still remember and use. Rather it has been my ability to think creatively and out of the box, a pragmatic approach to life and an eclectic collection of practical skills like a patchwork blanket that have kept me warm through winter’s cold. A Jack of all trades and master of none, but it has put food on the table and paid the bills my whole life.
We often wonder in transition how we can engage the young, the teenagers. Maybe we should start where the schools fall short and teach them those skills they will really need. From bread making to bush craft, bicycle maintenance to meditation; let’s make sure that our re-skilling courses are open to those that will really need them in the years to come: our children. Each kid should have their own patchwork skills quilt to wrap themselves in, so that when the world lets them down, they have the skills and confidence to build a new one.